Thursday, April 25, 2013

This Dove Flew the Coop: Reflections on Self Image

I do like this picture of me.  I think I was kinda cute.

Like many people, I have been fascinated recently by the Dove ad campaign that shows women who have two portraits sketched by a police artist who never actually sees them.   One sketch is based on self-description and the other on a description given by a person the woman has just met.   In each case, the sketch based on the other person's description is prettier, friendlier, better... while the pictures based on women's descriptions of themselves highlight their own perceptions of their flaws, rather then their beauty. I get it. Women are prisoners of poor self image.  My Facebook feed was filled with Dove re-posts, as women I knew were captivated by the videos.  Several of the blogs I regularly read, including this one on Inside Higher Education,  took up the discussion as well. 

First I have to say, "Go Dove creative team!"  Dove doesn't even have to spend money to place the ads because they are referenced everywhere in blogs, web forums, and television outlets. Not only did their targeted demographic, women like me, respond by posting and commenting on the videos, but discussions of the campaign and its merits have reached large national forums, such as David Brooks' column in the New York Times.  Parodies have appeared, lampooning the idea that men seem to think they are more attractive than they really are, making this a discussion about how gender informs self-image.  Wow-- from publicity to postmodern discourse with one ad campaign! The team deserves a bonus for all that buzz.

Since I was coincidentally writing something about how I hate to see pictures of myself, and how I therefore go to great lengths to avoid having them taken, and how this has gotten more difficult, now that everyone constantly carries a phone that is also a camera, I was especially interested in the Dove talk.   My real problem with having my picture taken, of course, is that I am always horrified by the results.  Mainly because I don't think they look like me.  That is, they look awful, and that can't be me, right?  I look like I have been the victim of some fun-house mirror filter, which grossly accentuates all the flaws I can usually forget about when I think about myself. 

This image found here
Clearly, something is wrong with me.  Do I actually walk around thinking I'm better looking than I really am?     Or, as the Dove people would have me believe, do I just judge my pictures harshly because I am a typically self-critical woman?  As with any choice that offers two possibilities, I actually think it's a little bit of both.  I don't have an accurate self-image, and apparently, though I am mentally kind to myself,  I am hyper-critical when I see myself in photographs.  Specifically, I am always surprised that my teeth look the way they do, and hey, what's with my hair, and I look so tired, and so fat, and so, you know, different than thought I looked.

And we don't take pictures to throw them away, do we?
I realize that my problem stems from my belief that my photos will persist in perpetuity.  So, yeah, not only are pictures worth a thousand words, but generations from now, they may be all that is left to record my existence and those thousand words will say that I look incredibly hideous.

We take pictures to keep, to remind us of a moment in time, to look back on, ponder, pore over and yes, critique.  Has anyone ever met a women, even a professional fashion model, who was able to look at a picture of herself without cringing at some element she saw?  And here is this difference between women and men. Some men are self-critical, but as a group, and I'm making a gigantic unsupported generalization here, men have less of their self-image hanging on what they look like.  They'd like to look good, they'd like to be captured for posterity in the best possible way, but they seem to allow for overarching conditions like age and weight and how long it's been since they've had their hair cut and how much they might have had to drink, whatever...  None of them want to look like idiots, but "hey, I look how I look," seems to be an acceptable male idea.  The Dove parodies may be onto something here, but I don't think it is going to help me, because it makes me feel even more ridiculous for caring about something like this in the first place.

This is clearly something I need to work on.

I don't think of myself as particularly concerned about my looks either-- I've never thought that was what I mainly had to offer-- I mean I'm not the Elephant Man or anything.  I'm average, but I've always figured that my sense of humor, my intellect, who I really am, counted more.  I grew up in the generation when kids were being told that what was inside counted most, and we were all beautiful inside.  (Yeah, it was the seventies.)   I know that I am not as unattractive as I think I look in pictures, and also, not exactly what I look like in my own mind either, where the notion of inner beauty apparently quiets my personal image anxiety. 

I have been horrified many times when someone has told me that a picture I found woefully unflattering "looked exactly like" me. Ouch! There are two, maybe three, pictures taken during my lifetime that I approved for viewing by a general audience. The best of them, shown above, was taken before my second birthday.   Another, from my wedding, was the one I finally deemed acceptable to use as my Facebook profile pic.  That's two good pictures in the space of about forty-five years.  There might be a decent one to come when I'm sixty or so.  And I remember feeling this way about my photographed image as early as junior high, when I looked at pictures of myself in my first yearbook. That I eventually worked on my high school yearbook staff was not completely uninfluenced by the chance it offered me to edit my own pictures.   (That, and the chance to roam the school "doing yearbook stuff.")

And this may get to the root of my discomfort. At my core, I am an editor. I write, but that is only to have something to edit, to polish, to perfect. I know that my first draft isn't quite right, that I could do better.  I don't know if this is a "feminine" trait, or just something about me.  In pictures, I always see where I could have improved.  I could stand up straighter, comb my hair, smile less oddly, and make a mental note to burn those jeans, or at least never appear in them publicly again.

This crazy self-editing actually coincides with one of the things I find interesting about the Dove discussion, which has gone beyond the talk of women and beauty and moved to talk of women and criticism, particularly self-criticism. David Brooks, at least, has brought up the idea that this might not be so bad. Let's just say it gals, we've gotten into a lot of trouble throughout history because men with some weight to throw around have thought they were better than they actually were. I think most wars really start that way, and this comes around to Brooks' thought that perhaps "feminine" self-criticism isn't an altogether bad thing in the world, because it cuts through some of the hubris that leads to all kinds of bad decisions based on over estimations of self-worth. Maybe one good thing about the specter of self-criticism is that it forces us to constantly assess whether we are giving our best. In life, and in pictures.  So we edit, we polish, we entertain alternatives, until we're more certain that we're really expressing the best of what we have to offer.  We try to stand up straighter. 

I know that inner beauty is what Dove was trying to get at, and I get it.  I just wish more of my inner beauty showed in photographs.  I can't wait to see the ad for the Dove product that makes that happen. That, I will definitely buy. 


  1. Awsome as always. I do not think you are capable of writing one that is not good/great/awsome.....

  2. Oh my gosh Erin, you are such a beautiful writer. I literally have tears in my eyes as I write this! I am dealing with this same issue actually today and I feel inspired & encouraged by your words. You my friend have a true gift for writing. Thank you for being vulnerable so that others may feel not so alone. I am so glad I got to meet you yesterday!

    Keep on keepin' on. I promise to keep reading if you promise not to ever edit my emails or posts for spelling, punctuation or grammar (wink)!

    Cheers! - Beth